It’s important “to be a scholar of what has come before you,” says singer-guitarist Davy Knowles, and he’s well aware of the preserve-and-protect mindset that exists among the so-called purists within the roots-music community.
With a handful of blues-charting albums under his belt, Knowles is indeed a member of that community. But his line of thinking is different: The key to staying relevant as an artist, Knowles says, is to adapt and progress — which really is no different from what others like him have done.
“Some of those same people who tend to be purists, from my observation, are the same people who think Eric Clapton is popular because he’s a bluesman,” explains Knowles, pointing out how Clapton reached the mainstream with the non-bluesy ballad “Wonderful Tonight.”
“If you’re listening to an enormous amount of stuff,” adds Knowles, “what pops out is what pops out, and it hopefully touches on all of those influences but has an element of your own as a result of there being so many influences. How everyone approaches these things is so different, and that’s the beauty of it. If everyone strove to be the same thing, the world would be a very boring place.”
Knowles’ new album, What Happens Next (due Oct. 22 via Provogue/Mascot Label Group), shows him expanding his musical horizons to reflect his interest in soul and funk.
“I’ve been listening to that stuff for a long time — just as long as I’ve been listening to blues,” says Knowles, who was born and raised on the Isle of Man and is now based in Chicago.
Prior to writing the What Happens Next single “Hell to Pay,” Knowles says he was listening to music by Fantastic Negrito, Sharon Jones and Sly Stone, and that led to him experimenting with soul elements.
“Lyrically, it’s not a personal song,” Knowles says. “It’s what popped out, and I really wanted to concentrate hard on the rhythm of the words. … Instead of trying to be something I’m not [with the song], it kind of met somewhere in the middle of what I’ve done in the past [and my interest in soul].”
Recording What Happens Next was set to begin in March 2020 at Horse Latitudes (Doors guitarist Robby Krieger’s studio in Southern California), but the pandemic prompted Knowles, bassist Tod Bowers, drummer Jeremy Cunningham and producer Eric Corne to hold off going there until that summer.
“We felt a bit more comfortable navigating what we were up against [by that time],” he remembers. “[The circumstances] really made us focus. We rented a small house, the four of us, and it was just the house and the studio. There was no going out to dinner. So it was really focused as a result. We recorded all of the basics all together in the same room. We wanted it to sound like a band rather than compartmentalized and fragmented. And then I stayed on for an extra 10 days or so, and we worked out of Eric’s home studio [in Los Angeles] and honed in on the embellishments.”
As for the production, “I wanted it to sound of its time. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be older than I am,” Knowles says with a laugh. “I’m in my 30s, and I wanted this to sound like someone in their 30s rather than in their 60s. We wanted a modern approach, but I didn’t want it to be overproduced, with too much going on. I think Eric kept me on track with that.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Davy Knowles on tour (schedule subject to change):
Oct. 21: Daryl’s House — Pawling, New York
Oct. 22: Higher Ground — South Burlington, Vermont
Oct. 23: Bull Run Restaurant — Shirley, Massachusetts
Oct. 24: Gateway City Arts — Holyoke, Massachusetts
Oct. 29: Park Theatre — Holland, Michigan
Oct. 30: Baker Street Centre — Fort Wayne, Indiana
Nov. 5: Vegetable Buddies — South Bend, Indiana
Nov. 6: Mojo’s BoneYard Sports Bar & Grille — Evansville, Indiana
Nov. 7: Southgate House Revival-Sanctuary — Newport, Kentucky
Nov. 11: Tralf — Buffalo, New York
Nov. 13: Infinity Music Hall and Bistro — Norfolk, Connecticut
Nov. 17: StageOne at FTC — Fairfield, Connecticut
Nov. 18: Stanhope House — Stanhope, New Jersey
Nov. 21-22: Fanatics Pub — Lima, New York